Ask The Expat
The Visa Challenge
In emails from readers I get repeated questions about visa requirements. Many Americans want to know what types of visas are available for them to live overseas. Below I have outlined a few visa options for those interested in living abroad.
Most countries allow visitors to stay as tourists from up to one to three months. As long as you can prove that you have sufficient funds, you might be able to extend your stay. Some countries require an extension every month, others only every three months. With the exception of a few retirement havens, such as Central America and the Caribbean, most countries have strict laws about how long foreigners can stay in their country as tourists, rarely allowing stays over six months.
In Western Europe, Americans are allowed to spend three months in the 15 European countries that have established a common immigration policy (also known as Schengen countries, named after a Luxemburg town, where the treaty was signed). They can apply for a 3-month extension, provided they can prove that they have enough funds to support themselves. Non-European citizens, however, can only stay in the Schengen area up to six months in any given 12-month period. This means that you have to overstay illegally, if you want to stay in Europe for more than six months. Since Americans don’t always get a stamp in their passport when arriving in a Schengen country, it is difficult to prove that you have overstayed. However, if you are caught you will be fined for the number of days you overstayed.
Volunteer and Internship Visas
These visas are easier to obtain than work permits, since they do not involve paid employment. Although most short-term volunteers and interns (up to three months or so) usually perform their work with a tourist visa or permit, many countries require an official visa for volunteer work or internships. This is a good idea especially if the period of your stay will exceed that of an ordinary tourist permit. Keep in mind that visas other than tourist visas or permits often have a substantially higher application fee and take longer to process. Always apply for the appropriate visa in your country of residence and well in advance of your departure.
For most language courses students are not required to have a student visa, but if you intend to enroll in a high school or university overseas, you need to get a student visa. Once you are accepted by a school abroad, you need to show proof that you can afford both tuition and room and board in order to get a student visa. With a few exceptions, most countries do not allow foreign students to look for paid work, but make sure you find out the details. Student visas are usually granted for one year and can be extended.
Work Abroad Programs and Au Pair Visas
A number of countries offer Working Holiday visas. Australia and New Zealand have a special short-term work program for young Americans, which is a flexible work permit for several months. Canada and the U.K. offer work programs for U.S. college students and recent graduates allowing them to work up to six months. Many countries in Europe have made it easy to work as an au pair without applying for an official work permit, but you may be required to enroll in language classes or university courses.
If you can prove that you have enough retirement income from your home country, many countries will open their doors to you and award you a temporary residency permit, as long as you are not planning to look for work. The required monthly income varies from country to country. It is fairly reasonable in Mexico and Central America, but high in Europe. Keep in mind that the bureaucracy for such residency permits can be daunting, and you might want to hire a local consultant or lawyer to help you with this task.
Long-Term Work Visas
Work visas are hard to get no matter where you intend to work. You need a job offer from overseas and your potential employer needs to prove to local authorities that they have advertised locally and that you are the best candidate for the job. After your employment has been approved by the local authorities, you can then proceed to apply for a work permit at the respective consulate in your home country. If you change jobs, you need to start over with the visa application process.
Permanent Residency and Citizenship
Permanent residency status is usually only granted after someone has legally resided in a country for a number of years with a temporary residency visa. If you have legally worked in a foreign country for a number of years, you may be eligible to apply for permanent residency. The same is true for people who have a temporary residency permit because of retirement. You can also apply for permanent residency if a relative of yours (parent, spouse, or child) is a citizen of that country. A small number of countries (among them Ireland and Italy) offer special ancestry visas, making it easier for foreign-born descendents of citizens to claim citizenship in the country of their ancestors. Once you obtain permanent residency status in a country, you will eventually be able to apply for citizenship, although the waiting period for citizenship varies from country to country.
For more information:
The websites of embassies of most countries provide detailed visa information. See the Embassies and Consulates listings for many countries in our Living Abroad by Country section.